You Want a Fuck Off Fund? Get Yourself a New Education
What I learned.
Since I became that woman who wrote the Fuck Off Fund, I’ve gotten a certain kind of education. Firstly, I learned that I’m not alone in my mistakes, because you whispered to me, in the confessionals of Twitter messages and emails, things you said no one else knew. You could have saved by now, but you hadn’t. You had credit cards you hid. You had $45,000 in debt to show after five years of working. You hate yourself.
What I learned over the last year has a lot to do with secrets. One class of secret includes the shame you’re carrying around about how “bad with money” you are. The other class of secret is the big secret — about how good this world is getting at sapping your money away.
Imagine an army. This army has a budget of $187 billion. Imagine this army knows things about you: your race and your gender, your address, phone number, how many people are in your family, how much money you make, what you buy at the grocery store and Target, everything you’ve written on Facebook, everything you’ve searched online, everything you’ve said in your emails, where you’ve been with your phone in your pocket and where you are right now.
Imagine this army has run $20 billion worth of tests on your species, in fMRI machines, to spy into your brain, discover what strings tug where, and use these strings to puppet your purchases. They can see where in your brain you process something you think is cool, like the newest MacBook Pro or a Lululemon model on Instagram. They know the parts of your brain that increase in neural activity when you see the symbol of a brand you really love are the same parts that respond to a symbol of your religion. They know that when you think you’re getting advice from an expert, the department of your brain responsible for critically considering options goes on break. They know you like the flavor vanilla, America’s most popular flavor, because you subconsciously associate it with comfort and nourishment. You do this because vanilla smells similar to breast milk.
They know how to conjure the siren song of your dopamine. They know your dopamine levels peak when you approach the counter to buy. “Dopamine is one of the most addictive substances known to man — and purchasing decisions are driven in some part by its seductive effects,” writes Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology and Brandwashed. “When you see that shiny digital camera, or those flashy diamond earrings, for example, dopamine subtly flushes your brain with pleasure, then wham, before you know it, you’ve signed the credit card receipt.”
This is the army of marketers you’re up against. So if you think you are just “bad with money,” please understand it’s reciprocally true that the people who want your money are just more sophisticated, organized, and well funded than ever in the battle to get it from you.
These are things I only know because I wrote a story about money, which led me into a rabbit hole of marketing and psychology. The life I thought we lived, where the mall was a nice place to pass a Saturday, dissolved like a mirage, replaced by neuro-marketing and big data and branding even to fetuses until I felt like I’d taken the red pill and woken up in a world I didn’t recognize.
I’m not anti-shopping. I like buying stuff, and I sell stuff. I know good people work at these companies and feed their families with their paychecks. I perform some marketing; I am part of the army, as you might be, too. So where do we find the balance between stalking the mall in a “yes master, I’ll charge this as you wish,” trance and fleeing to the hills to live off the land, logo-free?
The first step is to know what you’re up against, because you will lose every war you don’t know is happening. Education about this kind of reality, I’m sorry to say, does not deliver. You have to go out and get it yourself.
In the meantime, be a little easier on yourself. If you were bloody because Mike Tyson busted in your house and kicked your ass, you wouldn’t sit there berating yourself because you’re so bad at not bleeding. You would lock your door and set the alarm to keep Mike away. You would protect yourself.
We, the people, are getting our asses kicked. Half of us couldn’t handle a $400 emergency, and half our kids in public schools are living in poverty.
This army that’s set to capture your money is equipped with two major weapons: buttloads of cash and tons of information. Of these two kinds of power, only one can be obtained by the average person for free.
Information is my weapon, a kind of renegade self-education. Everything I learn helps me know who needs to fuck off. During the Peace Corps in Paraguay, I saw that Maybelline makeup and Axe Body spray were locked behind glass cabinets. That taught me that I already have enough. When I was taken in by a family I loved deeply by the end of two years, I learned that to complain that I don’t have whatever bag Current Kardashian is carrying around, I erase them, and their human experience. When I briefly body-guarded some millionaires (long story), and the woman sent back all the food in the nicest restaurants I’d ever been to, required us to tell the waiters not to talk to her more than necessary, but didn’t hang out with one other woman her age, I learned that money doesn’t buy happiness or friends.
What I’ve learned has helped me dig this moat around my financial castle: I don’t go to the mall, in general, because “when you enter a retail store you enter the ‘zone of seduction’ designed to make you spend. Remember it is not free entertainment to go window watching — there’s a catch. At the end of the day it is your responsibility to be on alert,” says Lindstrom. “Remember that every single product on the shelves, in every store, ad or billboard or online has a hidden agenda — to make you spend.”
I don’t get catalogs. I unsubscribe from the mailing lists I seem to get on get on every time I open my laptop. I try to avoid commercials. I try to avoid publications that only want to tell me how to fix the problems they just pointed out I have. I don’t watch shows that normalize diamond rings the size of Reese’s peanut butter cups. I decide when I lower the drawbridge to buy an Osprey bag that will take me on an adventure or to subscribe to the Freedom app so I don’t spend my life on Facebook.
I’ve learned that you have to say fuck off lots of little times before you can save your way to the big fuck off. When a Cadillac commercial tried to pit us against other cultures that enjoy more work-life balance to build community, family, and a life, I felt that inner, Fuck off, because I know the research says experience makes people happier than nice things. When the sharks on Shark Tank pretended to take a picture of each other using T-Mobile “super fast 4G,” (zoom in on the T-Mobile logo,) I puked in my mouth then thought, Oh, fuck off for thinking I’m so stupid that I would mistake product placement for real life. When a magazine takes a photo of one of the most beautiful women in the world and alters it until she looks like a human sex doll, I think “Fuck off for making me think humans actually look like that, and dangling this in front of me to get on the hamster wheel of your tips and tricks for being a woman.”
I can’t give you a fuck off fund — I can barely hang on to my own — but I can tell you that the more you educate yourself where it really counts, the more likely you are to get one for yourself. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that I can’t speak for those struggling with poverty, I can only speak to the people who know they could save, but aren’t doing it.
In order to really alter your life, you need the trifecta of change, according to Chip and Dan Heath, who wrote Switch. First, an emotional impetus (see: A Story of a Fuck Off Fund.) Second, an intellectual argument (see above), and, third, a clear path for change. Below I offer one such path.
If you read the Fuck Off Fund story last year, and by this year you’re kicking yourself because you haven’t even started one yet, let’s start over. I’m going to give you a year’s curriculum that could change the rest of your life. This is what helped me save mind. I’m not offering this advice because I’m good at this kind of stuff. I had to learn this because I’m the worst at this.
What I know now is that there are things that are shiny, and there are things that are truly luxury. The highest luxury I’ve known is being taken care of by the woman I was last year, and taking care of the woman I will be in the future. It’s knowing when I want to spend, and knowing what’s most important to the woman I most want to be.
Fuck Off Fund University: A one-year program in financial self-defense.
One book a month, read or listened to on audio, purchased or obtained for free from the library or OverDrive app, which offers free audiobooks via your library system. Read in order or by whichever one interests you most right now.
Unit 1. To Orient Your Experience in the World
1. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
2. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
3. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Unit 2. To Spend Less Money
1. Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom
2. The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
3. The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey
Unit 3. To Make More Money
1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
2. Influence by Robert Cialdini
3. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
Unit 4. To Strengthen Your Soul
1. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
2. A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle
3. Mindset by Carol Dweck
Homework: Invest in a membership to Lynda.com (or see if you get one for free through your library or university) and use it to improve your skills for 10 minutes every weekday or a power hour on the weekend, starting with Amanda Clayman’s class on Personal Finance.
Writing assignment: Start a blog to keep yourself accountable.
Class Participation: Join the Fuck Off Funders group on Facebook.
Extra credit: Listen to Dave Ramsey podcast daily on your way home from work.
This week, we’re celebrating the Fuck Off Fund. This story is part of this series.